As an adult, all of my pets have been rescue dogs. They included long-haired chihuahua ‘Shorty’ (1996-2000), Japanese Chin ‘Sammy’ (1998-2008), and cocker spaniel ‘Jake’ (2005-and still going strong). Although not specially trained, they have helped alert me to these noises around my house that I couldn’t hear because of my progressive hearing loss: knocking at the front door, ringing telephones, or one of my children crying. Their ears would perk up, and they’d yip or bark loud enough to get my attention. These animals have been such a vital part of my life.
Robin Dickson is president and CEO of Dogs for the Deaf (DFD), Inc., an organization that rescues dogs and trains them to help individuals with special needs, primarily deafness and autism. As a Lipreading Mom, I wanted to know how DFD provides such a unique service to those of us who cannot hear.
Lipreading Mom: How did you get involved in DFD?
Robin Dickson: Dogs for the Deaf was started in 1977 by Roy Kabat, my father. He had retired from a career of working with animals for movies and TV and moved to southern Oregon. In 1976 he was contacted by American Humane Society headquarters in Denver. They were trying to train dogs to help people with hearing loss and were having problems with the training. They asked him to come to Denver and give them some advice. He went to Denver and spent two weeks observing and giving them advice. He then came back to Oregon and started Dogs for the Deaf (DFD). We have been operating ever since. We are the oldest Hearing Dog training facility in the world.
Obviously, I grew up around all kinds of animals and was training both exotic and domestic animals from the time I was a youngster. In college I earned a degree in Business and Education. After my father started DFD, he suffered kidney failure and had to go on dialysis. He asked me if I would join him in developing the organization.
I joined DFD in 1981, beginning as a trainer and then becoming Assistant Director. When my father died in 1986, the Board of Directors appointed me Pres./CEO, and I have been in that position ever since.
In recent years, we have added the training of additional types of dogs to our work. In addition to the Hearing Dogs, we are now training Autism Assistance Dogs for children with autism, and we are also training dogs that are placed with professionals (therapists, counselors, physicians, teachers, court room advocates, etc.) who work with people with disabilities. These Program Assistance Dogs are trained to go to work with the professionals and help them in their work with their patients, clients, students, etc. All three of these types of dogs make incredible differences in the lives of the people they work with.
What is the training process?
We rescue the dogs we use in training from shelters so we are saving the dogs at the same time we are helping the people. Our trainers go to shelters all up and down the west coast. They carefully evaluate the dogs, looking for dogs that are suitable for the work. Those that meet the requirements are brought to our facility. All dogs go through a thorough medical evaluation and any problems are treated. The dogs are all spayed or neutered. Then they begin their training.
All training is done by our trainers. Each of our trainers goes through a three-year apprenticeship in order to learn all the aspects of evaluating dogs, training dogs, working with the clients, placing the dogs with the clients, and following up with the clients after they receive their dogs.
All applicants for dogs are screened very carefully. There is a lot of work and commitment required to maintain the dogs training, and we want to make sure the applicant really wants and needs a trained dog and will use them correctly.
During the five-to-six-month training period, each dog learns obedience skills, is socialized in order to be comfortable in public places, and learns the skills they need for the job they will be doing. This is very extensive training. Once the training is complete, the trainer picks the best match for that dog from our list of applicants and schedules the placement. The trainer takes the dog to the person’s home, wherever they live in the U.S., and spends five days training the client and all family members in how to care for the dog and maintain the dog’s training. After the placement is completed, we provide follow up support and help for as long as the team is together. We do follow up visits and help with any problems they might be having and are there at the end of the dog’s life to help with retirement or the passing of the old dog and getting a new dog placed with the person.
What is the autism program?
The autism program developed because of the great rise in the rate of autism. We could help additional people and rescue additional types of dogs. These dogs help the children and their families in many ways. The dogs are trained to serve as an anchor and prevent the child from bolting and running, which is a tendency of many children with autism. Also, the dogs help with a variety of things like motivating verbalization, calming and lessening temper tantrums, and helping with eye contact and bonding.
How does someone become a volunteer supporter?
DFD is totally supported by donations from all across the country. There is no charge to the people for the dogs. We get donations from people from all walks of life. We have volunteers in various parts of the country who serve as DFD Volunteers Ambassadors. They go out and do presentations for us to help spread the word about what we do and how people can get involved.
DFD is a win/win organization—we save dogs and help people with disabilities. Many of the dogs we have trained and placed have gone on to actually save the people’s lives in a variety of situations—alerting to fires, alerting parents to a child in trouble, etc. Hearing Dogs provide sound awareness, and they also provide companionship, increased independence and self- confidence, and countless other priceless benefits.
Anyone who is interested in helping us rescue dogs and help people with disabilities should go to our website www.dogsforthedeaf.org or call 1-800-990-3647 for more information.
Readers—Do You Have a Special Dog? Share Your Comments with Lipreading Mom!
Great story on Dogs for the deaf. Such a great outfit helping both the people and saving the dog. Sense I’m hard of hearing I’ve told my kids that I’ll have a dog for the rest of my life. As of now it’s just a regular dog, but at some point I’m going to need a special dog.
Tim – Thank you for commenting. I agree with you—dogs are a valued part of any home, particularly when they can help be our ‘ears.’
I looked into this years ago, wanting a dog to help me. My pug does a pretty good job but I can’t take her in public. However, the website said you shouldn’t have pet dogs around the working dog and I can’t bear to part with my pooches. Otherwise, it would be awesome.
Thanks for commenting, Tara!
Thank you for making us aware of this program. What a wonderful way of not only providing for those with disabilities (whether hearing loss or autisim), but dogs are being saved in the process.
Thanks so much for commenting, Kathryn!
Is there a place we can get training information? I am hearing impaired and expecting my first baby in June. I have 2 rescue dogs, one of which is very smart. I would love to try to train him to alert me to baby’s cries. I am in VA, if that helps.
@perkyblonde – Congratulations on your baby to be! Please contact Dogs for the Deaf at http://www.dogsforthedeaf.org to inquire about service dog training in Virginia. I wish you and your family the very best.